When does a research project end? When a report has been written? When a budget has been spent? When the last discussion of a project has taken place? It’s not clear, is it?
Neither is it clear when a researcher’s responsibility ends. This is rarely spoken of in the context of social research, which is an unfortunate omission. A few Euro-Western researchers recognise the need for aftercare, but they are a tiny minority of individuals. There seems to be no collective or institutional support for aftercare. In the Indigenous paradigm, by contrast, aftercare is part of people’s existing commitment to community-based life and work. Euro-Western researchers could learn much from Indigenous researchers about aftercare: for participants, data, findings, and researchers ourselves.
The standard Euro-Western aftercare for participants is to tell them they can withdraw their data if they wish. However, it is rare for researchers to explain the limits to this, which can cause problems as it did for Roland Bannister from Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Bannister did research with an Australian army band, Kapooka, which could not be anonymised as it was unique. Band members consented to take part in Bannister’s research. He offered participants the opportunity to comment on drafts of his academic publications, but they weren’t interested. Yet when one of these was published in the Australian Defence Force Journal, which was read by band members, their peers, and superiors, participants became unhappy with how they were represented. Bannister had to undertake some fairly onerous aftercare in responding to their telephone calls and letters. Of course it was far too late for participants to withdraw their data, as this would have meant retracting several publications, which is in any case limited in its effectiveness. However, particularly in these days of ‘long tail’ online publications, we need to be aware that participants may want to review research outputs years, even decades, after the substantive work on the project is done. We have a responsibility to respond as ethically as we can although, as yet, there are no guidelines to follow.
Data also needs aftercare, particularly now that we’re beginning to understand the value of reusing data. Reuse increases the worth of participants’ contributions, and helps to reduce ‘research fatigue’. However, for data to be reusable, it needs to be adequately stored and easy to find. Data can be uploaded to a website, but it also needs to be carefully preserved to withstand technological changes. Also, it needs a ‘global persistent identifier’ such as a DOI (digital object identifier) or Handle. These can be obtained on application to organisations such as DataCite (DOIs) or The Dataverse Project (DOIs and Handles). As well as enabling reuse, a global persistent identifier also means you can put links to your data in other outputs, such as research reports, so that readers can see your data for themselves if they wish. This too is an ethical approach, being based in openness and transparency.
Then there are the findings we draw from our data. Aftercare here involves doing all we can to ensure that our findings are shared and used. Of course this may be beyond our power at times, such as when working for governments who require complete control of research they commission. In other contexts, it is unlikely that researchers can have much say in how our findings are used. But we should do all we can to ensure that they are used, whether to support future research or to inform practice or policy.
Researchers too need aftercare. In theory the aftermath of a research project is a warm and fuzzy place containing a pay cheque, favourably reviewed publications, and an enhanced CV. While this is no doubt some people’s experience, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are a number of documented cases of researchers developing post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their research work. In between these two extremes, researchers may experience a wide range of minor or major difficulties that can leave them needing aftercare beyond the lifetime of the project. For that, at present, there is no provision.
Not much has yet been written on aftercare in research. If it interests you, there is a chapter on aftercare in my book on research ethics. I expect aftercare to be taken increasingly seriously by researchers and funders over the coming years.
An earlier version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association.